by Jason Lee Oakes
On March 9th, following Obama’s lead, Mitt Romney shared an mp3 playlist on the music-streaming service Spotify. Titled “On the Road,” Romney explained via Twitter that “spending a lot of time on the road means you have to carry good music.” And in the spirit of share and share alike, he generously offered up “some of [his] favorites.”
On May 17th, at a $50,000-a-plate dinner in Boca Raton, Florida, Mitt Romney opined that 47% of Americans are “dependent” and “believe that they are victims.” Since these Americans “believe that they’re entitled” to a certain level of care and convenience, he could “never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Given their parasitic non-income-tax-paying ways, he concludes that his “job is not to worry about those people.”
Interestingly, however, “those people” dominate Romney’s Spotify playlist. The tone is set from the very first song, a Dick Burnett cover made famous again by its inclusion in O Brother, Where Art Thou. In the song, the poverty-stricken Kentucky protagonist laments that he’s “a man of constant sorrow” with “no friends to help me now.” Instead of coming up with a responsible plan to improve his lot in life, he resolves only to “ride that northern railroad” until, perhaps, he “die[s] upon the train.” It’s easy to see why Mitt Romney would write off these whiny loser types.
Many of the songs carry on in this fashion. In fact, Mitt Romney’s Spotify playlist is a cavalcade of victimhood, weakness, pain, and dependence, with the occasional detours into hopeful-but-still-not-very-constructive romanticism and blind faith. On Clint Black’s Eagles cover, as elsewhere, the “desperados” in Romney’s musical universe are full of “pain and hunger.” Freedom is merely a bromide, “some people talking,” when in reality their “prison is walking through this world all alone.” Could it be that this playlist was put together before Romney gave up on “the 47%”? Or does he experience a certain schadenfrude in these tales of the common people?
Take track 13 for instance, “As Good As I Once Was” by Toby Keith. In the song, Keith weaves a semi-comic tale of an aging everyman who admits, “I ain’t as good as I once was.” No longer able to partake in biker bar brawls or twin-on-twin ménage à trois sessions, Keith looks back to “a time back in my prime when I could really lay it down” and offers the consolation that “I’m as good once as I ever was” (in the music video, even getting it up once requires Viagra, and only a spilled beer motivates him to help out a friend in a fight).
The song, a #1 country music hit, courts an audience that can identify with fading potential and the embarrassment of failure—trials almost anyone can identify with at one time or another. But this is precisely why it’s surprising to find it on Romney’s playlist—a song that sympathizes with the very people he shuns and which at the same time plays uncomfortably into the “America in decline” narrative that Republicans alternatively love and loathe. From a candidate with a firm belief in American exceptionalism and who criticizes the “weakness” projected by Obama’s foreign policy, you wouldn’t expect a song about Americans who shy away from no-strings sex and fighting (well, maybe the former). But there it is on the playlist.
In another surprising choice, the Kingston Trio’s 1959 cover of “The M.T.A. (The Boston Subway Song)” is chosen as the sixth track. Originally written as a campaign song for a Progressive Party mayoral candidate in 1949—Walter O’Brien’s campaign was so short on funds that he commissioned songs instead of buying radio time; O’Brien drove around Boston playing his songs over a loudspeaker but still came in last—the Kingston Trio version changes the candidate’s first name in an attempt to depoliticize the song (as a popular “folk” music group they were regularly criticized by folk purists for not toeing the Leftist line). Still, even in their version, it’s clear that the song is satirizing a bureaucratic system that treats its citizenry as nothing more than a source of tax revenue.
The lyrics describe a man named Charlie who gets on a train without the money required to exit—due to fare hikes and primitive turnstile technology, a surcharge was collected when leaving the subway—and thus he is doomed to “ride forever ‘neath the street of Boston” surviving on the sandwiches his wife hands him through an open window every day at lunchtime. Perhaps Romney interprets this song less as satire and more as a serious warning that’s tied to his home state no less; moochers may be let onto the train but they won’t be let off.
Kid Rock constructs a similar narrative on “Born Free,” the song most closely associated with the Romney campaign. Against a rousing country-rock arrangement, Mr. Rock describes being “on a rough road riding…wandering out into this great unknown.” Winding through mountains and canyons, “tired, frail, and aching / waiting patiently for the sun to set,” it’s uncertain if he’ll ever reach his destination. But either way he “doesn’t want anyone to cry / but tell ‘em if I don’t survive / I was born free.” This is the one song on the mix that’s at the ideological heart of the Romney campaign—a multi-millionaire celebrating the hard times and risky situations he’ll have to surmount to “make it.”
Another song in the grittily resilient category is the Killers’ “Read My Mind.” Over a U2-style soaring arrangement, Brandon Flowers assures us he “never gave up on breakin’ out of this two-star town” and that he’s still “got a little fight” to “turn this thing around.” The song is addressed to a significant other who, apparently frustrated by the singer’s lack of success (“you say I’m falling behind”), may still be able to “read [his] mind” and come to his rescue. At the end of the song he begs, or perhaps demands, “Woman, open the door,” and luckily, “she says I don’t mind…’cause I don’t shine if you don’t shine” (the woman makes for a good Ann Romney stand-in, playing the typical supportive role of a political spouse).
Which, finally, brings us to love. Romney’s 19 musical selections include more love songs than songs on any other subject. No big surprise, love songs are commonplace. But what’s more surprising is the hyper-emotional self-dramatizing tone of some of the selections (Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” and “Crying,” Del Shannon’s “Runaway”, and even the Killers’ “Somebody Told Me”) and the treacly, sad-sack quality of many of the others (the Commodores’ “Only You,” Tim McGraw’s “It’s Your Love,” Keith Urban’s “Somebody Like You,” and even Nat King Cole’s version of “Stardust”). Only two of the chosen love songs bring any sense of giddy freedom to the equation: the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and “December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” by the Four Seasons. Taken together, the love songs convey a vulnerability and neediness that seemingly isn’t in keeping with Romney’s image or his anti-handouts party line.
Love itself is alternately portrayed as a form of dependence, victimhood, or fantasy escape—in other words, it is the enemy of personal responsibility. The men in Romney’s songs “couldn’t walk a straight line even if [they] wanted to” without their lovers. Yet love is a scary “ring of fire” that sucks them in with its “hypnotizing, mesmerizing” qualities. Or it’s the “stardust of yesterday,” to be found somewhere “over the rainbow.” The one song on Romney’s list sung by a female artist, “All-American Girl” by Carrie Underwood, describes a father-to-be who, hoping for a male child with whom to share his football fixation, instead has a daughter who first beguiles him and later holds sway over him: “And now he’s wrapped around her finger / she’s the center of his whole world.” At sixteen his daughter hooks up with the star of the high school football team, leading him to abandon a sure college scholarship and start a family with her instead, fathering a daughter and repeating the whole cycle over again.
“All-American Girl” is an interesting musical choice for a man with five sons, but it’s consistent with the idealized attitude taken toward dependence and, to a certain extent, victimhood, heard throughout Romney’s Spotify mix. What most of the songs don’t do, however, in lyrical terms, is to demand better. Instead, like the Chinese workers Romney talked up to his rich donors, they are either grateful or resigned.